Shukhov, the title prisoner of the novel, is a poor and uneducated man. As such, he is an unusual protagonist in Russian literature. He is not an aristocrat, like most of the heroes of nineteenth-century Russian novels. He is also not a brilliant intellectual or impassioned sufferer, like some of nineteenth-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s characters. As a peasant, Shukhov comes from a class not often featured in Russian novels. He may even be illiterate. When he sees the poem Kolya is copying out, for example, he does not recognize the strange way of writing each line directly beneath the preceding one. He is amazed by men such as Tsezar who have lived in Moscow, which to Shukhov is an exotic, faraway land. Nor is he a gifted or sensitive emotional soul: he shows almost no affection for his long-forgotten wife and daughters, no romantic nostalgia for his lost home, and no dreams of a better life elsewhere. Shukhov is an ordinary Russian, as implied by his name. “Ivan” is one of the most common names in the Russian language, like the English “John.” Solzhenitsyn makes this undistinguished man the hero of his novel in order to represent the uneducated peasant mainstream of Soviet society.
Shukhov’s struggle shows us the peasant’s inner nobility in the face of degradation. His full acceptance of his new identity and of his camp life, and his amazing ability to build a meaningful existence for himself out of the arbitrary camp system, make him a spiritual hero. His intensity in living, eating, and working puts him in control of his world. For example, when Shukhov works on a brick wall, the narrator says that he focuses on it as if he owned every inch of it. In a way, although he is a slave, he is still the king of his little area of the world. He is not an aristocrat by blood, but inwardly he is proud, supreme, and untouchable.